Utah House passes bill to overhaul DEI in public institutions

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden speaks about HB261, Equal Opportunity Initiatives, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.
Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden speaks about HB261, Equal Opportunity Initiatives, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

The Utah House passed a bill Friday to overhaul diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public institutions in the state.

The bill, HB261, moved out of the House after a 58-14 vote along party lines in the Republican-controlled body. The final vote came after nearly an hour of debate between Democratic representatives and GOP lawmakers that focused on clarifying questions about the bill’s impact on minority students and local governments.

It will now proceed to the state Senate, where it is expected to advance to a committee hearing early next week.

The bill, Equal Opportunity Initiatives, aims to outlaw DEI requirements and programs at public universities, schools “or any other institution of the state” that engage in what the legislation calls “prohibited discriminatory practices.”

The bill would provide guidelines for institutional neutrality on political issues and mandates that universities continue to provide student success resources. But offices dedicated to helping “high risk” students would have to do so without violating the restricted practices outlined in the legislative text.

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Freshman Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, the bill’s sponsor, presented the proposal as a “positive” alternative to DEI.

“This bill is focused on removing barriers for all students and all Utahns who overcome adversity through hard work, initiative and talent,” Hall said. “It doesn’t close cultural centers, it does not defund programs or scholarships, it does not exclude students who need extra services for their academic successes, including those who are already receiving services.”

Rep. R. Neil Walter, R-St. George, speaks about HB261 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, right. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
Rep. R. Neil Walter, R-St. George, speaks about HB261 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, right. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

How have Republicans responded to criticisms of Utah’s DEI bill?

Despite Hall’s assurances, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced concerns about how the bill’s strict bans on differential treatment between individuals based on race, and other “personal identity characteristics,” could affect ethnicity-specific health care initiatives, the experience of minority students on campuses and even the state’s bid for the 2034 Winter Olympics.

In response to each concern, Hall said her bill would allow current practices to proceed in almost every instance unless they violate the bill’s restricted practices. Other lawmakers spoke up to defend the bill as well.

“This bill ensures common sense policies in state agencies and higher education institutions,” said Rep. Neil Walter, R-St. George. “Institutions of our state, including higher ed, should not promote political ideology. This bill is focused on removing barriers for all students. This bill supports diversity and inclusion. This bill supports and advocates for equality. This bill does not justify or condone, in any way, racism.”

“Diversity, equity and inclusion” has become a catchall phrase for policies meant to create an environment of belonging and equal opportunity in colleges, schools or on campus with a focus on groups that have faced historic discrimination. It can take the form of diversity statements in hiring, employee trainings and programs intended for particular identity groups.

Hall said university professors, administrators and other stakeholders told her something needed to be done to reform DEI initiatives in institutions of higher education to maintain academic freedom and avoid differential treatment based on immutable characteristics like race.

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In their current form, Hall said, DEI initiatives on college campuses often serve to enforce a certain ideological viewpoint and fail to create a welcoming atmosphere for all students. Through collaboration with colleagues and campuses, Hall said she has developed what she considers a new approach to reestablish academic viewpoint diversity while keeping resources in place to help a diverse student body succeed.

“We’re losing the ability to engage in free and open conversations and positive return on investment for taxpayers, and students,” Hall said.

Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, speaks about HB261 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, speaks about HB261 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

What worries to Democrats and others have about Utah’s DEI bill?

Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate came out against the bill. Rep. Brett Garner, D-West Valley, said previous discussions about the bill had not included K-12 education or government entities and that such an expansion would result in unforeseen problems.

House Minority Whip Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, and Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City repeated earlier criticisms that Hall’s efforts were not backed by data and send a message to Utahns of color that their safety in schools is not a priority for state lawmakers.

“I’m afraid that we’re erasing people. We’re erasing identities. We’re erasing experiences,” Romero said. “I want to remind all my colleagues, there’s unintentional consequences when we just try to sweep things and say we’re all the same but we’re not. There are still a lot of things that have to change in this country for us all to be on a level playing field.”

During a public hearing on Wednesday, community members spoke in favor and against the bill. Business owners and college students shared how they believed DEI is essential to protect minority youth and create a level playing field for academic success.

Before the bill’s passage, the Salt Lake Chamber issued a statement in response to HB261.

“This bill is significant for businesses as it directly impacts the future talent pool. A diverse and inclusive workforce is not just a moral imperative but a strategic advantage for businesses aiming for sustained success,” the statement read. “We encourage lawmakers and education leaders to work together to foster understanding and identify which policies and programs support these principles and, therefore, should continue, and which need to be eliminated or adjusted.”

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks about HB261 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks about HB261 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

When asked whether her bill would negatively impact Utah businesses, or communicate that Utah does not value diversity, Hall said it would not.

“I think this opens the door to all Utahns to not be judged based on a group identity, but to look at all that an individual encompasses in their life experiences,” she said.

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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox spoke out against DEI initiatives at a press conference last month, arguing they had failed to achieve their stated goals of helping students, instead fostering “identitarianism” and stifling intellectual diversity.

Cox’s comments were followed shortly after by declarations from the Utah Board of Higher Education and University of Utah President Taylor Randall that diversity statements would be discontinued in hiring processes.

During a media availability on Friday, Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said Republicans and Democrats are in agreement that “inequities” exist among minority communities. But disagreement emerges when it comes to finding the most productive solution to the problem, he said.

“We, as a legislature, feel there’s a better way to do it and that’s to create the unity where we bring everybody together and if there’s those kids that are at risk, we are working to address and give them equal opportunities,” Schultz said, explaining that “minorities in the community are a higher risk as a percentage, and so there will be a focus on those.”